Books Reviewed by Val McDermid Winner of this year's Golden Dagger Award All reviews originally appear in the Manchester Evening News and are kindly supplied by the author. Photo of Val by Jerry Bauer.
Cadillac Jukebox by James Lee Burke
Buford and Karyn LaRose are the golden couple. Beautiful, rich and well-connected, they seem the perfect pair to oust the right-wingers from the State Governor's mansion. But behind the flawless surface, the maggot of corruption is worming its way through their lives. It first surfaces in the shape of the case that made Buford LaRose's name as a liberal activist. White trash Aaron Crown's murder of a black civil rights leader had been a cause celebre, but now TV journalists are sniffing around and suggesting Crown might not have been the guilty man. Somehow the local Mob have a finger in the pie, not to mention a savage hit man who makes Hannibal Lecter look like a Sunday school teacher. In the middle of this is small-town cop Dave Robicheaux, a man burdened with the freight of too much local knowledge and the necessity to maintain his integrity in the teeth of all sorts of sweet temptations to take the easy way out. As always, Burke paints a haunting picture of a claustrophobic society in rich and lyrical prose that makes the alien domain of the bayou as immediate and vivid as the world outside our windows. This strong and resonant thriller reconfirms his place as one of the finest American writers in any field.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice
by Laurie R. King
As every good mystery reader knows, when Sherlock Holmes quit detection, he retired to the South Downs to keep bees. What he wanted was the quiet life. What he got, according to Laurie King, was a gawky but fiercely intelligent apprentice. Not only that, but this apprentice was a young woman, spiky and sharp enough to penetrate Holmes's misogyny and attractive enough to provide crime fiction's most unlikely but utterly credible romance. The story of the growth and development of this strange relationship between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes is the fabric on which King embroiders a series of tales of mystery and detection, building inevitably to a dramatic climax that pulls together all the elements of Conan Doyle's creation in a way that manages also to be fresh and modern. Never derivative, this is no pastiche, but rather a breathing of fresh life into the Holmes myth, using historical parallels to impart truths about the here and now.
For my money, Laurie King is the most interesting writer to emerge on the American crime fiction front in recent years. Intelligent, humane, gifted with both talent and insight, she is unalloyed pleasure to read. She never repeats herself, constantly promising and delivering new directions, exposing new depths and revealing fresh perceptions. Her first novel won top awards on both sides of the Atlantic; they won't be alone on her mantlepiece for long.
Fan Tutti by Michael Dibdin
(Faber & Faber, £14.99)
Aurelio Zen, Michael Dibdin's peripatetic Italian policeman, has fetched up in a backwater in Naples, nominally running the port police, but actually doing as little as possible. Although he chose the post as the lesser of two evils, he's finding it surprisingly pleasant to have nothing more devious to plot than separating the daughters of a friend from their unsuitable lovers. A gang of terrorists might be murdering the corrupt and the criminal on the streets, but that's no longer his problem.
In this fifth Zen novel, Dibdin has abandoned his usual dark ambience for the farcical world of opera buffa. Using the story of Mozart's Cos Fan Tutte as his jumping-off point, he embroils Zen in a labyrinthine gender-bending plot that draws in every possible comic operatic embellishment -- mistaken identity, illegitimate children, coincidence, disguises, eavesdropping, even the Furies in the form of Zen's ex-wife, former lover and irate elderly mother. As in the best Mozartian farces, everything comes together in the final scene, where all the characters shout at each other in counterpoint and the curtain falls on complete resolution. Underneath the buffoonery, however, Dibdin has serious points to make about the corruption we create with lies and secrets. Rich in comedy, Cosi Fan Tutti makes a stylish and entertaining journey from overture to finale, all played against the varied backgrounds of a real Naples that owes nothing to popular mythologies.
The Keys To The Street by Ruth
Like a substantial number of readers, there is no British crime writer whose books I look forward to with more pleasure than Ruth Rendell. She is the ultimate anatomist of the anomalies of the human psyche, probing behind public facades to reveal private torment and distorted visions that change the way we view the world around us. Her latest excursion in mapping our mysteries demonstrates that even the most populous precincts of our busiest city can yet be a mere village to their inhabitants and even the ir transients. Set around Regents Park, The Keys to the Street draws together a disparate group of people -- a young heiress, a vicious rejected lover, the recipient of a bone marrow transplant, a street vagrant, a head-banging junkie and a dog walker who finds it easier to be kind to animals than people. From the connections among these damaged souls, both chance and deliberate, Rendell weaves an ominous and suspenseful tragedy against the backdrop of a meticulously described London district. It is a measure of her skill that the murders nominally at the heart of a crime novel -- vagrants brutally impaled on railings -- become almost irrelevant as we grow more and more fascinated by the fate of her characters. Although this is not among Rendell's finest work -- the mechanics of how she creates her effects are perhaps more obvious than usual -- it is still an outstanding and inexorably gripping read that will not disappoint her army of fans.
To The Hilt by Dick Francis
(Michael Joseph, £15.99)
That Dick Francis is a man of passions is clearly shown by his occupations as a jockey determined to win and as a writer committed to producing an annual, page-turning thriller. His best novels have always therefore tended to feature heroes who share that aspect of his personality, and To The Hilt is a cracking example of the type. Its protagonist, Alexander Kinloch, is the scion of a Highland clan who has opted for the eccentric life of a painter, concentrating not on portraits or brooding mountains and silent glens but on golf courses. He's also good at hiding things so when a bunch of thugs arrive at his remote mountain bothy to kick the stuffing out of him and to ask, 'Where is it?' he's not even sure whether they mean the family heirlooms or his latest painting. It's no coincidence - - it never is in a Dick Francis -- that his stepfather's brewery is on the skids and the old man is clinging on to life by the fingertips. Alexander might not know it yet, but he's been nominated to wrestle with demons and dice with death to save the family honour. Dick Francis will never win prizes for his style and the same set of characters tend to recur from book to book. But when it comes to telling a story that grabs on page one and doesn't let go until, pulse racing and blood beating in your ears, you get to the end, he's the Lester Piggott of the literary world. He's recently been made a Grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America; To The Hilt, another classic winner for the champion, shows how right they were.
of Mr Kitchen by Charles Higson
(Little, Brown, £14.99)
In the conventionally moral world of a Dick Francis novel, Charles Higson's nameless protagonist would inevitably be cast as the baddie from the moment he first appears. A cynical, arrogant, self-obsessed interior designer whose dual ambitions appear to be opening a chain of eponymous design stores worldwide while simultaneously snorting the gross national product of Columbia, he is deliciously loathsome and irresistibly engaging. He can't even sell his car to a complete stranger without becoming embroiled in the sort of testosterone-fuelled conflict that inevitably ends up with blood on his hand-knotted rug and a corpse impaled on his decorative candelabra. Our amoral hero isn't worried about committing murder -- he's more concerned about the effect being arrested would have on his glittering career. What starts off as a logical and simple plan to get rid of this minor irritation quickly spirals downwards into a disaster area of post-holocaust proportions. The main problem with Getting Rid of Mr Kitchen is the relentless and unvarying pace, which starts to become as tiring as The One Note Samba on an endless tape loop. Nevertheless, wickedly witty, mesmerisingly monstrous, our narrator ends up looking down the barrel of a fate that makes Dante's Inferno look like a Sunday School picnic. We should hate him, but we end up almost sorry to be losing him.
A Little Yellow Dog by Walter Mosley
(Serpent's Tail, £12.99, £8.99)
Walter Mosley talks of his books as a medium for giving a voice to the real lives of disenfranchised black men. And in the continuing chronicle of reluctant detective Easy Rawlins -- starting in 1948 and moving forward now to 1963 -- we see exposed in all its grimness and occasional glory a world that had been closed to those of us who had not lived it. It does not make one proud to be white. Easy has made it to black respectability as head caretaker of a school; but even this small triumph is not without its pressures, since white janitors don't like having a black boss and the school principal agrees. So when a black teacher is murdered on the premises and there's evidence of a large scale burglary racket in the school system, Easy is the perfect target for the pointing fingers. To cover his own back, Easy sets out to uncover the truth behind the lies that form the patina of his Los Angeles environment. It's a search that brings him up against harsh truths and bitter knowledge before he finally pays the price his discovery demands. As ever, Mosley tells his complex tale in muscularly lyrical prose that is strongly romantic without being sentimental. My only reservation is that Mosley's women are only ever perceived in terms of their sexual attractiveness and availability unless they're so old they practically don't exist. It's a misogyny that stands between me and the text and mars an otherwise superb novel. Men probably won't notice it; but women surely will.
Faithful Unto Death by
There's a tendency to sneer at detective novels set in English country villages, as if somehow the only reality in 1996 Britain is gritty and urban. It's true that many such novels are dull and derivative, but to confound anyone who thinks the English 'cosy' is dead, thrust upon them any of Caroline Graham's excellent Inspector Barnaby novels. The latest is set in Fawcett Green, a typical Thames Valley village with its mixture of commuters, the retired clinging to past glories, the rural poor and a grapevine that makes Fleet Street look like Trappist monks. Simone Hollinsworth disappears from her expensive executive home, her husband falls to pieces then is found dead just as the ugly girl next door goes missing, and the local artist seems more fragile than the stained glass she makes. Against this background, imaginative copper Barnaby and his sidekick Sergeant Troy, charmless and uncouth as a Pot Noodle, struggle to make sense of contradictory evidence and unmask a killer as callous, devious and selfish as ever stalked a mean inner city street. Graham wears her craft lightly, dressing up a clever tale of heartlessness and nastiness in classy writing embroidered with an acerbic wit and a sharp eye for human detail. One to savour.
Death Is Now My Neighbour by Colin
Now the fuss has died down and everybody who cares knows Morse's first name, it's time to take a look at what may well be the final book in the Oxford policeman's urbane saga. It's said that pets become like their owners; perhaps fictional detectives become more like their creators. Certainly it's true that the newly diagnosed diabetes that oppresses and preoccupies Morse for much of this book is prefigured in Colin Dexter's own life. They share a love of real ale and fine music, an aptitude for crossword puzzles and a sardonic humour. But there the similarity probably ends, for if Dexter suffered from Morse's pessimism and misogyny, I doubt very much if he could have given us a series of novels so redolent with generosity towards human frailty. This is no exception. A young woman is shot dead in suburban Oxford. When her neighbour meets a similar fate, it appears to have been a case of mistaken identity. But with the inimitable partnership of Morse and Dexter, nothing is ever quite what it seems. Add to the mixture an internecine battle for a key college post, a blackmailer's kit, a Tory pornographer and a nurse who promises a uniquely happy ending for the morose Morse and you have a cryptic conundrum that will keep his army of readers well satisfied. As challenging as one of those crossword puzzles without the black squares, Death Is Now My Neighbour is a must for anyone who enjoys a devious twisting plot wrapped neatly in intelligent and discursive prose. And let's hope there's more to come.
Top Banana by Bill James
The only thing Bill James's coppers have in common with Colin Dexter's is their rank. It's never entirely clear whether the police or the villains are the more ruthless in this extraordinary and electrifying series of novels that would give Dixon of Dock Green the screaming habdabs. A teenage drug courier is gunned down in the street, seemingly the chance casualty of a gang war where rival drug crews shoot to win ascendancy over a patch of urban territory. The horrified Chief Constable, desperate to be seen to take charge, demands that his men infiltrate the drug gangs. But ACC Desmond Iles has his own plans -- offer the villains a few favours in exchange for peace and quiet on the streets. DCS Colin Harpur is caught in the middle of the politics and the crossfire between the gangs. Strangely, it turns out to be the perfect position for learning the truth. As the violence, viciousness and villainy unfold in a kind of stylised ritual dance, lives crumble and wither before our eyes. The recent curiously flat television translation of Harpur and Iles did no justice to the desperate world of depravity and bone-deep corruption inhabited by James's cops and robbers alike. Pray they never come to your street.
Eyeshot by Lynn S. Hightower
(Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)
When mother of two Julia Winchell goes missing after an adulterous interlude at a small business conference, it looks like a routine runaway wife case for Cincinnati detectives. Until homicide specialist Sonora Blair remembers a report of a severed leg...
Before long, Sonora, herself a working mum, realises this is no random killing nor is it a crime of passion. For Julia Winchell was a witness. Eight years before, she'd seen a stranger drown a pregnant woman. But nobody believed her. Now she's seen the stranger again. But he's the District Attorney. And that means he knows exactly how to kill again and get away with it. For Sonora, the case becomes a horrifying race against time as she realises that the DA killer murdered his first wife because she was pregnant. And now his second wife is pregnant too. Not so much a whodunit as a 'will-they-get-him?', Eyeshot is a harrowing and tense suspense thriller that gets the adrenalin pumping. What makes it stand head and shoulders over the opposition is Hightower's ability to create characters the reader really cares about, even when they're behaving badly. A class act.
Even The Wicked by Lawrence Block
Lawrence Block is one of the most talented and versatile of American crime writers. His 'Burglar' series is wry and funny and the Leo Haig series is a daftly appealing pastiche of the Golden Age. But with his Matt Scudder private eye novels, Block penetrates the deeper reaches of the human heart and deals with the big issues like loyalty, redemption, guilt and fear. Scudder, a recovering alcolic married to an ex-hooker, is hired to uncover the identity of a vigilante killer, the self-styled 'Will of the People,' who assasinates those whose actions disgust society but who are somehow beyond the law. His client is the latest target of the killer, and despite Scudder's best efforts, he too dies at the hands of 'Will'. As if that wasn't enough, Scudder has to work out why someone would want to murder a man already dying of Aids. Strong on the rich atmosphere of a New York tourists never see, Even The Wicked winds inexorably towards its disturbing and tragic conclusion, leaving us sadder and wiser. There are no easy answers in Scudder's world and Block makes us uncomfortable by forcing us to examine our own moral assumptions about right and wrong. A terrific series that goes on getting better and better.
The second novel in a series is a tough test; this week reveals two
British crime writers who have overcome the hurdle with honour.
Too Many Blondes by Lauren Henderson
(Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)
Stroppy, smart-mouthed Sam Jones is struggling to make a living as a sculptor, so she's signed up as a part-time instructor at the local council gym. Unfortunately, where Sam goes, trouble follows. The seething discontents among the staff erupt into violence, and Sam's first on the scene when the manager is found in the ladies' loo with her head caved in. The dead woman's beautiful boyfriend Derek is the police's prime suspect; not only is he a notorious superstud with more notches than kilos on his barbells, he's also black. Her sense of fairness outraged, Sam decides to clear his name, assisted by vodka, speed and a cop who's hot to trot with our outrageous investigator. Too Many Blondes zips along as if it too is on drugs, bursting with rare energy and fire as Sam rollercoasters towards a solution. Henderson writes with utter conviction, exposing what it's like to be young, wild and hard-hearted in London. Bitchy, bouncy and ba-ad.
Death Minus Zero by John Baker
(Victor Gollancz, £15.99)
Sam Turner became York's most laid back private eye by accident, but now he's doing it for real. He's got an office and a staff, even if that's only former street kid Geordie, unemployed snooker player and womaniser Gus, and retired English teacher Celia. He's even got a client, a wierdo who wants to track down Snow White. What Sam doesn't know is that his client, Norman, is on the run, an escaped psychopath who kills with less compunction than most people crush beetles. By taking his cash, Sam has embroiled his eccentric team in a downward spiral of bloodshed and carnage that will transform their light-hearted lives into merciless, dark bleakness. Baker skilfully sets Norman's story in grim and disconcerting counterpoint to the optimism Sam and his sidekicks feel about their new beginning. As Norman's viciousness slowly weaves a constricting net round Sam and his fellow sleuths, we and they are drawn into a terrifying claustrophobia that appears to have only one possible ending. With his second novel, Baker takes more risks than many writers would dare and triumphs. To appreciate his achievement in full, start with the first, Poet In The Gutter.
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